Pealing Back

I have a love hate relationship with personality tests. Unfortunately, in ministry vocations they seem ubiquitos. Whether it is the Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, or Work Styles profiles, we are constantly testing ourselves as a practice of self-reflection. The problem is, of course, sometimes we don’t want to know this much about ourselves. Ignorance is often bliss. On the other hand, self-knowledge can be a tool of self-justification. While there are those who hide from personality surveys, there are those that hide behind them. Both are escaptist. One runs from knowing, the other runs from changing.

Yet, as I frequently teach, spirituality is a matter of understanding ourselves in the light of God. Knowing more about myself isn’t a self-interested enterprise. Rather, it is a practice that also guides us to knowing more about God and who God has created us to be. That project requires also finding out about our dark sides, the things Christian tradition has called vices. Knowing both the dark and the light side of ourseleves reveals both where we are and where God is leading us. In other words, we come to see our transformation in grace as we see the things we wish we didn’t know.

I remember vividly the first time I worked with the Enneagram. We were at a retreat and had each taken the survey. In the evening session, after I had been reading up on my “number,” we were invited to share about our understandings and experiences. I was amazed by those around me who seemed ready and willing to peal back the masks and talk humbly and bluntly about their hopes and struggles. I was not as willing. Everything I had read made me cringe. I was not ready to disclose what I had learned about myself, nor was I ready to share where I thought it was leading.

Now, some five years later, I am still in that place. In a recent conversation I shared some of what I have learned about myself through various surveys. It was like pealing off a bandage that has been stuck for some time. Whether slow or fast, the pull and pain are never something to look forward to. I even went back to my notes on my Enneagram number and the same frustrations resurfaced. While I hope that what I learned in five years has moved me further into grace, I could still see the things I wish I did not know.

This kind of self-work is not a matter of works justification. Rather, it is a journey in and through grace. Grace uncovers our struggles, and grace gives us the means to live even more fully into grace. And in light of such grace, we cannot help but try. We are not trying to transform ourselves by our own handiwork but are taking part in what God has begun in us. That is to say that God’s grace does not wipe away our struggles to fulfill our hopes in an instant. In fact, grace has a way of revealing the stregnth in our weakness. God invites us into the journey of living into our salvation– that is, who God created us to be and become. The tricky part is that we are stuck in time. We cannot help but look at this journey in terms of cause and effect. Yet, as Paul reminds us, we are to keep at the race.

Pealing back the masks we wear intentionally or those shaped unconsciously over time. This pealing back is what Thomas Merton called living into our true-selves. Much is made of autheticity today. People long to be accepted for who they are. These personality assessments have a way of confirming the worst of our personalities, for after all it is simply “who I am.” So we tell each other our types in a hope that we are somehow being transparent or authentic and expect others to adapt. Within the larger frame of Christian spirituality, however, these tests help us to see who we are becoming in the light of God. The change is on us personally. We are to know ourselves, and that means the blind spots in our individuality while at the same time seeing the strengths and opportunities. In other words we must look at our results through grace– seeing the drawbacks being transformed into opportunities.

The trick, at least for me, is learning how to see myself in a less self-depricating light. In other words coming to a place where I no longer cringe at the results, but ask in prayer how might I turn to more healthy and vital ways of living into grace.

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Why more books?

It was rather surreal to see the book in print. In case you missed the tweets and Facebook posts, we rolled out the first book of a new constructive theology series from a Brethren perspective. Kate Eisenbise-Crell pulled together a fantastic volume on atonement (how we are made one again with God). The book is called Cooperative Salvation, and is a helpful study of various theories of atonement. Kate summarizes the history of salvation thinking, including a look at Anabaptist thought, and names significant critiques from a range of feminist thinkers. Her final chapter is an interesting discussion of the human problem, the role of Jesus, and the call of the church in effecting social salvation by putting Anabaptist/Pietist writers along side feminist and Process perspectives. To see how this comes together, you just have to get the book here. While some may not agree with Kate, or might question some of the sources she uses, the goal has been to put a voice into the conversation. Through her excellent summaries of the various theories, Kate walks us through the questions and gives us a point of conversation. (Please take a moment to support Kate’s work here.)

Kate’s book is the first fruit of several years work. Noting a lack in Brethren voices in contemporary theological debates, a small group formed an editorial board to open space for Brethren theologians to contribute to these wider theological discussions. The group, comprised of Kate, Denise Kettering-Lane, Andy Hamilton, and myself presented a series proposal to Wipf and Stock publishers and received the green light. Though the list of books is open ended and still a work in progress, Kate jumped right in. Over the course of a year and a half she prepared the manuscript, the series editors all had a first read with comments and suggestions, and the book went to print. As we say in the series introduction:

This series seeks to add Brethren voices to the contemporary discussions of faithfulness in Post-Christendom. Scholarship among the Brethren in the last century was decidedly historical in method. Constructive theological contributions have been few, and this series seeks to fill that gap. This series then hopes to reach two audiences. First, it aims to provide a Brethren perspective on Anabaptism to the conversations among Neo-Anabaptists. Second, it seeks to contribute a constructive theological resource for the Brethren themselves.

So, then, why publish more books, especially for a tradition that has had a healthy skepticism of theological discourse? Therein lies the intent. As more and more pastors and theologians turn to the Anabaptist traditions to understand another way in the new day of Post-Christendom, we need to put our voices out there. What do Brethren have to say? How do we understand our own stream of Christianity? What does our tradition have to offer in response to the questions of our time? While I still believe our first mode of action is to live our faith in the Gospel as individuals and communities, publishing offers a voice beyond the confines of our tradition.

I remember when I started my studies at another seminary. As we read John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas I remember vividly how interesting it was to hear people talking about my stream of Christianity. All of these Methodists and Baptists echoed what I had learned in the course of worshiping and studying in living communities of Anabaptists. They were talking my language, and all without actually walking with us! And all of this was because some guys published a few books. At the same time, I found myself correcting, or at least tempering, some of what was being repeated. If only, I thought, we had a few books from Brethren to point to in the conversation. Where was our voice of an Anabaptism/Pietism in the conversation?

So here it is! While it is just one book, I am excited by the opportunities. As more and more people look to the Anabaptists as models of new faithfulness, I am convinced the Brethren have a unique contribution to share. Some may worry that these books might set down some kind of official doctrine, or speak too much of one kind of “Brethren.” Yet, that is far from our intention. We have worked to have a range of perspectives, even within our small editorial group. And we are committed to finding many voices, following what Stuart Murray Williams has called “a multi-voiced” model. Rather than turn to just one or two people, like Yoder or Hauerwas, we aim to seek out thoughtful and articulate voices that can engage both our tradition and our culture. What an exciting time! I am so thankful for the work of the editors, and especially for Kate’s hard work and tenacity to jump right in. I am also thankful to Wipf and Stock for picking up such a venture. All I can say is this— May there be more to come!

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Whose authority, which worship

This post is part of a NuDunkers conversation on worship and authority. As is our pattern, a Google Hangout will take place Thursday, September 25 at 10 AM eastern. You can watch the conversation live here, or you can catch it on Youtube. You are all welcome to join the conversation in the comments, or write your own blog. Each of us will also follow up the Hangout with a post that will name what struck us in the conversation. 

A healthy mistrust of authority runs through our modern DNA. With so many examples of those who have abused their role for personal gain, or at worst, those who have so exercised their authority to harm or even kill millions of people it is completely understandable. Even for us as Brethren, this mistrust of authority has theological roots. In the early days of the Dunker movement, authorities came in two general forms— the clergy and the princes. Those authorities were often the source of both political force and theologies that reinforced that same force. On the run from princes and bishops too closely aligned, the early Brethren often counted on a kind of radical democratic practice. Rather than count on the clergy and princes to define the terms, the community of believers functioned as the guide for the early Brethren.

The problem with this brand of anti-authoritarian posture is that we all too often confuse (as a friend recently commented to me) being against authoritarianism with being against authorities— that is persons who, by training or office, have significant roles in our lives. In short, we basically rail against any person who speaks into our lives. “Who are you to tell me what to do or to believe.” While this is certainly understandable in some situations, we often rely on relationships with others before we trust them enough to grant them any authority.

The problem, of course, is that many people have significant power in our lives, whether we let them in or not. That is why worship can be such a contested space in our church lives. Those who write the songs, compose the litanies, and even shape the service have a significant role in giving shape to our theology, often without our explicit consent to their authority. When the words we use in worship both speak for us as a community and impact the ways we conceive of God, they have a unique role in our lives. Those persons who write and speak in worship have a kind of authority.

When those words conflict with our ideas, or even our way of life, the conflicts flare up. “Who are you to speak for me.” Sometimes, even the strongest of relationships are tested by this conflict of words and authorities.

The problem is, of course, that there simply are authorities. The question, then, is which authority do we allow to shape our actions and perceptions. Because we assume that the authority of the worship leader or preacher is contingent upon the role we overlook the skills and study that inform his or her functional authority. In fact, when the conflicts emerge it is precisely the skills and understanding that are dismissed out of hand. “You are just the preacher.”

James K.A. Smith helpfully shows in Desiring the Kingdom how there are many practices and stories that shape us. When we are confronted by the worship wars, we are inevitably choosing between two different sources of authority. Something, or someone, is informing our perceptions and understanding along the way, and we choose (possibly subconsciously) which authority has the most sway in our personal actions.

So a worship leaders have significant authority in the choosing of words and songs to guide the worship of a community. And I, for one, want someone who has also cultivated the theological authority to make those judgements outside of the worship gathering. However, I am well aware that our priesthood of all believers theology can undermine that skill based authority. In other settings it is the office or role that has the authority, with or without clear theological authority. We are, then, stuck in a bit of a conundrum. Our priesthood of all believers commitments balance out the times when role trumps skill, and yet that same commitment can equally undermine when skill and function are aligned.

Though I have no answers in naming this tension, I do find the words offered to new graduates of nearly every educational system offer us some way into the question. When a student “commences” their next stage of life and receive the degree for which they have toiled, he or she is told that in receiving the diploma that they also receive “the rights and the responsibilities pertaining thereto.” Those rights and responsibilities that strike me as the core question for us around authority in worship. Both the community and its leaders have significant rights and privileges. Yet, they are equally responsible to one another in the exercise of those rights.

What would it look like for us as people of faith to state clearly what we think those rights and responsibilities are? What would it look like for us to articulate the many other authorities that shape us, that we allow to define the terms and practices for us as individuals and communities? What if, instead of stating “Who are you to speak for me” we started with the questions of what rights are in conflict, or what authorities are competing in our midst?


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Midwife Theologians

When we were expecting out first child we decided to go with a midwife. Actually, there were several midwives in this particular practice. In the course of our many visits we saw each midwife so that we would be familiar with whoever happened to be on call when we arrived at the hospital. 

On the night our son was born the midwife amazed me. My wife had started induction earlier in the day and progress was slow. That night, when hard labor came, the midwife was in our room the whole time. She coached on occasion, and she waited patiently while we did what we could to make it through the contractions. When it was clear that a little more intervention was needed, she stepped right in and confidently guided my wife. 

At some point in the last few minutes the IV line pulled out of my wife’s hand. At the sight of the blood on her arm I began to panic. But the midwife looked at me with her cool face, and told me everything was fine. She was the epitome of what counselors call a non-axious presence. 

I was reminded of the work of a midwife in a conversation with my theologian, poet friend Dana. We were talking, as we usually do,  about the new energy in pockets of the church and the age old question of what a church bureaucrat is to do with old wineskins and new wine. Maybe this is the time for midwives of the church. Maybe we need those people who recognize the pain, and point to the birth of something new.

Some argue that as institutions and structures begin to crumble there are open places that emerge. These open places are the perfect place for creative and new things to take shape. What is need though, are those persons who can inhabit the fissures and work in the open space. It is a weird mix of being within the structures yet challenging old visions and dreaming new dreams. It is in this middle place of the now and not yet that the midwife is most needed.

We need coaches who know the signs of pain for pain’s sake and pain that births something new.

We need leaders who can discern what that “something new” looks like, even if it is just visible in outlines.

We need pastors who aren’t anxious and can hold the space for conflict and struggle, not taking it personally but offering counsel and guidance when those around are too mired in the structures as they are to see the possibilities. 

And we need compassionate guides who see the failures in the way things are now and can invite others into new modes of faithfulness. 

We need more midwife-theologians.


Filed under Ecclesiology

Why Study the Past?

To be fair, not a lot of Anabaptists study the history of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. As one professor of mine comically noted, “that’s when everything went wrong!”

So the question remains, why study the past? (I have directly lifted this question from the title of a magnificent little book by Rowan Williams. I have no desire, nor the ability to compare my thoughts here with Williams skill and insight.) As a member of a tradition that evaluates the shifts of the church marked by the conversion of Constantine and the acceptance of Christianity as an imperial religion this question is much more specific. Why spend so much time on a age when we already think that so much went wrong?

Any answer to such a question should make a simple, though nuanced distinction. There is a difference between telling the story of what happened and making a judgement about the appropriateness of what happened. When John Howard Yoder, and other Anabaptist writers, summarize the events of what we often call the Constantinian shift they are making an assessment of those events. Basically, they are asking not what happened but whether what happened was good. The historian, on the other hand, tells the more fundamental story of what occurred, without (as much as possible) judgement. Ironically, the former work is dependent on the latter. 

As an Anabaptist historian of the Constiantian age I frequently struggle with the stories told by likes of Yoder. I am clearly sympathetic with the judgement, but do see how such stories are more rhetorical than they are true. Basically, the judgment clouds how the historical narratives are understood. The problem is, of course, that the wider theological claim is too easily dismissed by others as poor history, or barely supported by the historical record. 

This is not to say that judgement is not warranted, but those with a historical awareness have developed the skill of assessing what is in the record and what is a matter of current concern. In other words, I can narrate the changes of the 4th and 5th centuries, but I also realize that my judgement is constructed on the later implications of those changes— the investiture controversy of the Middle Ages, the Peace of Westphalia in the wake of the Thirty Years War at the dawn of the Reformation, and the cultural Christendom of the United States. My problem with the changes has less to do with the changes themselves, but with the ways they played out over the following centuries. 

More specifically, I think the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries have much to teach us as we experience our own cultural shifts. Not only were these centuries formative of much of Christian belief and practice, but the shift towards power seems to offer much to ponder as the Church slips from the privilege it gained. 

First, Constantine does not become Christian out of nothing. Certainly his mother’s engagement with Christianity has much to do with his acceptance of the faith. Yet, for a woman of such power and status to even play with the faith so persecuted means that the church was already rising in its own status long before 313. Even while the persecutions were under way under various efforts, the apologists tasks of legitimizing Christianity in the early centuries and the attractiveness of the Christian ethic spread the faith far beyond the poor or marginalized. Basically, good Romans were coming to the faith before Constantine made Christianity an official religion. 

This is not to say that toleration and acceptance were the only results of Constantine’s conversion. In the following years theologians, and even Constantine himself, began a process of synthesizing the Christian and Roman narratives. Piety, a key virtue for both cultures though defined in different terms, soon linked good Christians with good Romans. Even the council of Nicea, and Constantine’s later support of Arians, was a matter of imperial concern. The church could not be divided since the empire must be united. This was not just a political calculation by the Roman emperor, it was a theological claim based in both Christian self-understanding and Roman imperial religion. Division and conflict was a sign of the gods’ dissatisfaction with the empire. Writers like Eusebius of Ceasarea worked hard to pull the two traditions together in order show not just continuity but also a kind of Divine favor. Basically, what was promised in Christ’s return was coming to pass in the “Christianization” of Rome. 

In short, the logic of a people sojourning within a dominant culture shifted. Now the Empire was a fulfillment of God’s plan. It is not all that hard to imagine Christians of the time celebrating, even welcoming such changes. The threat of persecution was vanishing, and the there was no more need to fear reprisal by neighbor or govenor. Whether or not they agreed with the theological shifts exemplified in Eusebius, the peace of Constantine was a pleasant new reality. Why not welcome the culmination of cultural privilege?

That same logic of Imperial Christianity is still with us, even as the vestiges of cultural Christendom crumble. There are those who would claw their way back to the culture articulated by Constantine and Eusebius. There are those colonialists who would link evangelization, the sharing of the good news, with the spreading of political ideology. There are those who would see the nation-state remain a religiously legitimized institution, even if that religion is a kind of generic Christianity without the trappings of particular denominations. Though I’ll refrain from judging the intent of writers like Peter Leithart, who recently published a book with the glowing title of “Defending Constantine,” I do think his version of the story reflects this impulse. Even Leithart notes he is writing to confront the rhetorical historicism of the likes of Yoder and Hauerwas. Yet, it is striking that his portrait of Constantine is painted in decidedly democratic terms. In Leithart’s story Constantine comes across as the model of democratic virtue, tolerant and peaceful, concerned with the virtue of his realm, and working toward a balanced application of Christian values in the culture. Never mind the dramatic shifts in logic and practice, or the fact that culturally he remained the Augustus of the Empire and presider over the imperial cult. In short, the clear contradictions are glossed over in a kind of prefiguration of a Jeffersonian politician. 

Leithart asks the wrong question- was Constantine a Christian? Whether he remained fully Roman or tried to emulate and establish the faith of the early martyrs, the shifts in theology and practice matter more. Even with Leithart’s defense, we moderns must ask if these shifts were “good for the church.” Can they even be harmonized with the scriptural witness to Christ and the first Christians? Is it possible to see the faith as an Imperial Religion and still call Jesus Lord?

As Christian power and privilege wane, I think these shifts of the early centuries have much to teach us. From where did the assumption that Christianity and political power were best held together come? How might we untangle some of these assumptions that continue to be rolled out in the rhetoric of the Christian nation? How did we get here? And what do we do now that those assumptions are no longer culturally valid?

I have my own arguments to answer these questions, but it is first important to say that we, who are comfortable and welcome this next cultural shift, need to know the past. It is not enough to point to Constantine and proclaim “therein lies the problem.” Rather, we need the better story of how the theology, logic, and practice shifted, and how others of the time forged different ways even as Christianity took the throne. We need to understand Imperial Christianity in order to better tell the story of a Christianity as an alternative politic in our current time. By studying the past, even the outcomes of those happenings with which we so strongly disagree we better understand the logic and theology that we confront day to day, here and now. 

It isn’t so much about what Lord Acton famously said, that we might be doomed to repeat our past, but rather that we comprehend the thick portrait of who we are now by tracing the lines through the centuries. In other words, good theology is built on good history. 


Filed under Theology

Twitter Killed the Theology Star

We all know that video killed the radio star, but what about social media? Has Twitter killed the theology star?

Theology has rarely been “in style” but social media has opened a door onto the once insular conversations. There was a line between popular and academic theology. Now, with Twitter and blogs, emerging academics write for an audience outside of the “guild.” At the same time, writers of varying degrees jump into blogging and tweeting as a part of their promotional strategy. In the publishing economy, this is becoming more and more essential. One’s followers in social media is seen as market potential.

The clear benefit is that an “ivory tower” discipline can begin to step out of the tower and speak so others may hear. Theologians can begin to hear their work in conversation with so many more people beyond their fellow specialists. Too many books are published for the dozen our so colleagues in the field. Just look at the footnotes and you can see a conversation between a few people. Engaging a wider population helps to stretch our vocabulary and style while at the same time inform our thinking in ways that the traditional format of guild journals and academic publishing has not yet done.

Yet, social media is also creating a bit of a different culture that brings with it a number of problems. First, it creates an air of conversation that is really non-existent without intentional cultivation. Few writers have been able to actually engage an audience and keep the conversation constructive in the process. Instead of conversation, trolls and ideological one-upmanship tend to dominate the threads. As we have seen, a number of news outlets and journals have shut down the comment sections of their webpages for that very reason.

For those emerging into the field by the nature of their formal education or in a desire to cultivate a following to support future projects, the conversations often feel like nothing more than self-referential. In academic forums this is fairly typical. It is not uncommon to sit in a conference presentation and listen to question after question from graduate students that are more about their own interests than about the paper just presented. It is kind of like that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character calls out a first year grad student for his pompous recitation of the basic syllabus. “So you must be in this class, wait until next year when you read these books and you will change your mind.” Yet, in social media, such dismissiveness is akin to heresy. The democratizing assumptions in Twitter and Facebook are such that any attempt to “pull rank” is quickly labeled as mean or patronizing.

The effect is a kind of conversational throat clearing. The theologian has to defer to the readers and commentators in a way that often dismisses his or her own research and expertise. There is no room in social media for a true expert or trained practitioner. Instead, in the chaos of comments, he or she must constantly acknowledge the critiques of readers who often have only read the basic introductions to any one theological topic.

In other instances, when the commenter does have some expertise in a field, the conversation quickly focuses on that person’s understanding. In face-to-face conversations, the expectation of collegiality pushes towards connections and development. Yet, in social media the conversation often sounds like someone trying to make everyone else’s project look like their own. Of course there are ways to show the interrelationships between different theological arguments, often through questions. But the tactics and rhetoric are such that there are sentences of preface in order to not sound like a troll or a random critic.

I am beginning to wonder if Twitter and Facebook can ever really support the kind of conversation they seem to capitalize on. All we need to do is look at the number of headlines that basically say “Look at what this person said on the internet, how stupid can they be!” Or, skim the Twitter feed and see how many “gotcha” tweets have been posted in the last 30 minutes. The nature of short, pithy, and decontextualized statements the likes of Tweets and Facebook posts is based in the soundbite culture of our media. While substantive discourse can emerge, such conversation has to be filtered through the noise of trolls, snark, and flat out error. In short, the energy expended in filtering our the static quickly outweighs the benefits of the media itself. The end result is a social media “persona” that is just as one-directional (“Here is what I think on this subject”) as traditional publishing has been for centuries. Either respond to all the comments, or don’t. To filter out the dregs of trolls and off-handed remarks runs the risk of looking too self-concerned.

For those in Anabaptists circles, social media gives the feel of community when all that really exists is a connection. We often insert our expectations for high church community where relationships are a significant part of our theology, and assume that these connections give us place to confront or converse. However, community in social media is a rarity, and takes effort to cultivate. Just because you are friends on Facebook or follow someone on Twitter does not give one the capacity to “call out” or for that matter to question. In the end, such questions or comments are just more noise to filter. And when the comment or critique that we think is substantial is filleted with the dregs, it becomes personal or the silence becomes a statement made about the character of the other.

In the first centuries of Christianity, Tertullian famously asked (with a bit of rhetorical irony) “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem.” Maybe it is time to ask a similar question. What does Twitter have to do with Theology? Maybe it hasn’t killed the theology star, but it is importing expectations into the conversation that may not have been there in other media. Maybe social media in general is creating a false sense of community, giving connections the weight of true relationships. This veneer, however, is quickly shattered when someone does not respond as we think they ought. This is not to say that community cannot be encouraged, or even cultivated on-line, but rather such communities are the outliers, and thus the exception that proves the rule. Building relationships through social media takes just as much effort, if not more given the lack of context and non-verbals, as building them in face-to-face conversation.

So then, the irony should be clear. Here I am writing about the pitfalls of social media on a blog that will be shared through Twitter and Facebook. The question, then, is to you: What of theology in the social media landscape?

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Forget Buechner: Or It Isn’t About You

If you have been in any conversations about vocation or calling in the last decade undoubtedly you have encountered the Frederick Buechner’s trite little phrase on the subject.  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC)

When I first heard the phrase, it was a like a breath of fresh air. Finally, someone wasn’t talking about a calling like it was a chain around your ankles, something you ran away from for years only to finally submit to its weight. Buechner helped many of us recognize that God might actually have something in mind for us that we are passionate about.

That’s the plus side of his catch phrase. But in the years following, possibly as I have grown into my vocation, I have to say it isn’t all roses.

Truth be told, a calling is work. There are things that need to be done in order to do what I am called to. There are deadlines and paperwork. People have expectations for me, and ask for things outside of my “passion.” And these same expectations often set up climates where I must be political and not speak the first words that come to mind.

Of course, there is some balance to be found here. When the things that sap my attention and energy far out weigh the joys of my calling, then possibly it is time for a change. But at the same time, I cannot just keep flitting between what excites me at each new moment. There has to be some staying power to my vocation, or otherwise it isn’t vocation at all. It is just a hobby.

Basically, Buechner got it half right.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many days when I pinch myself saying “I get to do this as my job.” There is certainly a sweet spot to find between passion, need, and work. There is even a place where God’s own desires meet the other three. And that sweet spot is not always easy. There are bound to be draining days, where tasks consume any joy. And there may be times where God calls us to places we would not go given our own preferences. But to be honest, we do harm to the wisdom of Buechner’s definition when we over-emphasize the “me” part.

And we do a great disservice to those around us in discernment when we invoke the phrase and ignore the costs of our calling. Though a vocation and true calling is life giving, it is not all apple pie and ice cream.

Lately, I have found myself celebrating with persons who have found the release when they finally step into the next stages of their vocation. And then, a sentence later, I find myself reminding them that it will be tough. There are requirements, hoops to jump, criticisms of others, and even hard work to be done.

That second sentence comes from experience. As people ask how I can possibly do this PhD thing, I frequently say something like this: “If I had known what it would take before I started, I most likely would have gone another way.” But honestly, I cannot imagine what that other way would be. The path to this vocation of mine has been paved with sweat and tears, literally. I have been medicated for anxiety and depression for years. I have cried at the shear effort expended to “claim my voice.” And I have laid awake at nights fretting over the papers to be written. I have yelled at colleagues and professors. I have been yelled at in return. And yet, when the page comes off the printer, or someone recalls something I have written, all of that fades away and I say simply “this is my calling!”

Buechner was half right. And the other half lies in the space between passion and hunger. In that space is the hard work of following after a God who leads us into lacking and need.

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Obey! (Or something like that)

The problem with having so many projects “on the desk” is that things start to overlap. The ideas emerging from one thing frequently merge into the notes for another. Thankfully, even my dissertation intersects with some of my “work” work, especially around the questions of practices and formation.

This last year we have developed a series of resources that describe the ordinances of the Church of the Brethren— Baptism, Love Feast, and Anointing. Speaking humbly, they turned out great. In doing the background work for those cards I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about ordinances as a concept. For many traditions within the Radical Reformation, the idea of sacraments we handily rejected. It was simply too magical and too clerical. But they were struck with the clear commands of the scriptures to “do” certain things. And for many of these folks, who took the idea of “scripture alone” to its logical and radical conclusion, when scripture said to do something it must mean we are to do it. So the idea of an ordinance is that these things we do— baptize, wash feet, share the bread and cup, and anoint with oil— are simply matters we are to obey. Jesus and the scriptures commanded them, so we do them out of our obedience to Christ. They were ordained (hence ordinance) as set apart practices for the church. No magic, no complicated theological interpretations, we just do what we are told.

The idea of obedience is certainly not fashionable today. In some ways, “obey” is a new dirty, four letter word. We like freedom. We crave the idea that we can do what we wish, buy what we want, and vote for our guy. Freedom of choice is the mantra for 21st century America. It is the most supreme of values. So to try to talk of Christian practices as acts of obedience is a nonstarter. If there is anything our culture tells us to obey, it is our inner wishes and desires. True freedom, we are told, is a matter of following our own inner longings.

So, then, what about desire? For good church folk, the word desire is just as taboo as obedience is in the wider culture. Its too messy, sounds too sexually charged. And we all know that decent folks don’t talk about those things. Yet, as James K.A. Smith says over and over again in his book “Desiring the Kingdom,” desire is fundamental to our humanity. We desire things and people. We desire recognition. We long to be accepted. All of these point to the deepest longings of our hearts. And, as Smith says just as frequently, there are forces at work on our desiring. We are formed to want certain things and certain ends. We may not talk about those things as our desire, but we want them nonetheless. The forces at work on us come through the various things we do and see. So commercials and the euphoria of buying work on us, below our conscious awareness, to want the very things we want. These practices point our desiring energy in certain directions. So like it or not, we desire. And like it or not, someone or something is telling us what we should want.

My daughter is in that fantastic age where she wants to be her own person but still wants to please mommy and daddy. So she will venture out on her own, try out something new, and even push the boundaries a bit here and there. But when she does something we don’t like, and we tell her, you can see that she is crushed. The bottom lip pushes out, the head turns down, and little tears start to collect on her eyelashes. When she is clearly tired, or is disconcerted by a new situation she says, with the most soft of voices, “Daddy I want you.” It is as if she gets that weird intersection of desire and obedience that we adults try so hard to pull apart. At her tender age of three, she wants us as parents so much that she wants to do what we want her to do, even while she tests the boundaries of her own identity and explores her own options.

It seems to me that Thomas Merton described just that intersection in his memorable prayer from “Thoughts on Solitude.” His words have stayed with me ever since first reading it: “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.” Right there, in the meeting place of God’s will and our desire, is the intersection summed up in idea of ordinances.

We do these things, not out of coerced obedience but out of longing desire. That is the tough-to-grasp nature of our freedom in God that Merton frequently tried to describe. We are most free when we are living within the will of God. For those around us, the idea that freedom and bounds, choice and direction seem contradictory. But in Merton’s prayer we see the beautiful paradox of our “desire to please” and the desires God has for us. The irony here is that Christianity is at least up front about this meeting place of desire and an another’s will. We, as disciples, are in the process of conforming our desires to the will of God.

The advertises, marketers, and the corporations they represent try to buy this intersection. They mask the work they do on our hearts under the guise of “choice.” No commercial is designed to get us to exercise freedom of choice, but to get us to choose this particular thing. There are always people around us telling us what we should want. They conform our desires to the will of an unknown other.

Centuries ago, the philosopher Plato described the human soul as a chariot pulled by two horses. The first, he said, was the desiring horse that pulls us towards certain things. The second was just the opposite. That horse directs us by pushing away other things. In that combined movement of reaching out and pushing away the human soul moves towards an end. In different terms, in our desire for one thing we are simultaneously rejecting others. There is a boundedness to that movement. Our reasoning ability, said Plato, holds the reigns of these two powerful animals. We guide the two— the desiring and the rejecting— between the unlimited consumption through desire on one side and the rejection of everything on the other. Contrary to the proponents of free choice, where every option is on the table and good, reason steers us between the options in the quest to reach what is truly good and beautiful.

And this is just what Merton and my three year old daughter teach us. We desire to obey. We long for what others desire for us. That is the paradox of an ordinance.

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To Kenosis or Not to Kenosis

In a previous post I asked if Neo-Anabaptism is a ‘White Dude’ movement. The issue is that as Christendom crumbles, we who self-identify as either Missional or Neo-Anabaptist trumpet the need for a letting go of power, a kind of kenosis of the church. The hymnic imagery of Philippians 2 often stands as the central scripture for such a perspective. For, just as Jesus ’emptied himself,’ we too ought to let go of power and privilege.

In the best light, this approach is a critique aimed at the American church as is slips from the center of society to its margins. In a way, we are offering a bit of solace as Christians lose the influence we once had politically and culturally. Such a ‘self-emptying’ is an opportunity for more faithful discipleship.

In more problematic ways, however, such an invitation can be heard as a proscription telling others that they are to let go of too much. As I said in that earlier post, it should give us pause to think that just as persons on the margins of society are gaining influence and power the white guys are saying that power and influence are not that important any more. In a weird kind of role reversal, those who were in positions of power and privilege are once again telling women and marginalized men to become more like white men. We have come so far, yet have not changed at all.

This shouldn’t suprise us too much. Theologians have been warning us for some time that a theology of Kenosis– or self-emptying– can often be used oppresively. Or, as theologian David Jensen of Austin Presbyterian Seminary noted in his book ‘In the Company of Others, “the theme of self-emptying has been used in our patriarchal context as fodder for the obliteration of the selfhood of women and marginalized men.’ (19) He went on to say that ‘unless images of suffering, self-sacrifice, and emptying are accompanied by the denunciation of injustice, the image of emptying becomes simply a coping mechanism in contexts of oppression and not a prophetic critique of existing oppressions.’ (20) Instead, Jensen offered, a just use of Kenosis involves relationality and otherness, and a ‘wider, social understanding of the human being, the world, and God.’ (20)

My goal isn’t to restate Jensen’s argument. Instead, I want to build on my earlier observation that Neo-Anabaptists must explore more intently issues and theologies of power. In our current use of Kenosis, we must be aware of both its implications and its critiques. Certainly, in Paul’s language in Philippians the idea of self-emptying is a descriptor of God’s own movement. It is then in light of God’s own action that we are to respond with the same movement to others. In a way, God’s self-emptying in Christ is a movement that empowers humanity to live abundantly. It is a giving that empowers. Our own kenosis is to mirror that same empowerment.

Kenotic theologies more justly argued in the way Jensen illustrated also push us to acknowlede ‘otherness’ more fully. In that way, I wonder if a more contemporary rendering of ‘Kenosis’ might not de-emphasize the dynamics of power and powerlessness. Rather, Kenosis more aptly points us to a vulnerable crossing of boundaries. In that frame, kenosis is a matter of setting aside our ego in such a way that we can more fully engage the humanity of ourselves and others. In traditional language, we often assume that power means ‘power over others.’ When viewed in this way, power is a wedge between one person and another. Yet, when we look to the example of Jesus, the aim was not letting go so much as it was a way of reaching out. God crossed the boundary between Creator and created so that all of creation might flourish.

The typical move among Post-liberal thinkers and some Neo-Anabaptists is to redefine the terms that cause the most trouble. As I stated in the earlier post, we need to expand our definition of power. Yet, at the same time, we need to reorient our other terms so that they no longer carry the oppressive weight of keeping things as they were. Kenosis is just one such term. When we view it as a bridge building act that sets aside ego, things like stepping aside so that others might speak become not only possible but normative. In other words, creating a multi-voiced church, or a rich hermeneutical community, is made possible by actual acts of letting go. At the same time, the cultural power and privilege that persons do have by nature of their class, gender, and race can be seen not so much as hurdles but as opportunities to open spaces for others who have been culturally marginalized.

In other words, Kenosis as “acts of vulnerable boundary crossing” is a way of reclaiming the humanity of all in the midst of a culture and way of life that diminishes some for the benefit of others. It becomes a practice that raises all rather than an coping ideology that maintains systems of oppression.

For me, the greatest kenotic practice is that of washing feet. On the first Maundy Thursday of Pope Francis’ pontificate the media was astonished that he entered a prison in order to wash the feet of 12 inmates. For those used to seeing the pope guarded by cardinals, and elevated above the crowd in so many ways, it was a profound reclamation of Jesus’ own washing of the disciples feet. For those of us in traditions where feet washing is a regular practice, it was not all that shocking. Time and again we have had our feet washed, and have stooped to wash the feet of another. In that mutual act of vulnerable boundary crossing, we have found profound aspects of ourselves and our sisters and brothers. It is that mutuality of serving and being served that the greatest meaning of kenosis is lived out. No one is left washing the feet of all as a servant of the house would have done in Jesus’ day. And at the same time, we each receive the grace of the priestly act of another.  What is more, there is no coercion in the act. In both washing and being washed, we each act freely. No one is forced to kneel, forced to perform the ordinance by an oppressor. And at the same time, the one being washed offers bare feet in a act of intimate vulnerability. In that moment, the boundaries are crossed. And in that shared kenosis, both are raised up. Both grant each other grace in their shared humanity.


Filed under Theology

The Powers and the Power of Love

Those communities who follow the Revised Common Lectionary have been sprinting through the Sermon on the Mount these few weeks. This past Sunday the reading was challenging in its talk of turning the other cheek, giving of a coat and cloak, walking the extra mile, and loving enemies (Matthew 5:38-48). In American society where retribution, possession, and fear define so much of our imagination, these words of Jesus are a hard pill. 

In social justice communities there is a deep skepticism about these words from Matthew 6. In the hands of the privileged and powerful these few verses are a violent tool. They tell those on the margins to take one more slap, give up one more possession, and sit quietly by. Since Jesus tells us to take it, then surely this means you (women, minorities, LGBT persons, and the poor).

Of course this is to ignore the context of the sermon itself— both in the days of Jesus’ preaching and for the early church. The listeners and readers were not part of the ruling majority and to impose these words from above is a crass misreading. That is what author and theologian Walter Wink was trying to say by recasting these injunctions from the margins. The argument is rather simple. In Roman times, to slap someone with the back of the right hand on the right cheek was to dehumanize them. By offering the other side of the face, the one slapped was quietly subverting the norms by forcing the assailant to slap open handed. In effect, the tactic allowed the victim to reclaim some piece of humanity. That logic, said Wink, applied to the rest of the commandments. To be sued for a coat and to offer the cloak as well was to shame the litigant by the nakedness of the one who gave up both freely. And to carry the armor of a soldier two miles was to break the law that said a soldier could only force someone to walk a single mile. 

This Wink-ified version of the scriptures is to take them out of the hands of the oppressor and remind us of the possibilities of nonviolent resistance. They warn us against making them a prescription for others and ignoring them for ourselves. In reading them in such a way, we see just how effective nonviolent resistance can be, even in a time and place where super militaries define the ways we imagine change. Even more to the point, this reading reminds us just how practical the actions of Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi actually were. 

However, there is a second— and even more difficult to swallow— commandment in Jesus’ words. Not only are we to tactically reclaim our humanity in the face of powerful oppression, we are to act out of love itself. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

This is so difficult because we are told to see the oppressor as human. While we are trying to reclaim our own humanity in the face of violence, theft, and oppression, we are told to respond with love rather than reciprocal hate. It is all too easy to resist with tactical actions and yet hold hate within. The difficult work of the Sermon on the Mount asks us to work just as hard internally as we do in our actions of mercy and justice. It is not enough, Jesus says, to reclaim our humanity by turning the other cheek. We are to reclaim the humanity of the ones doing violence by loving and praying for them.

In the partisan, sound-bite age it is common to vilify and dehumanize the other. They are idiots, backwards, naive, or worse. They are less human because of their unnoticed power and privilege, or due to their overt violence against others. We are formed to denigrate whoever is unlike us.

Changing the power relations between people seems a whole lot easier than changing the ways we see others. Turning the other cheek is easier than actually loving the one who strikes us. Jesus then challenges our presuppositions about nonviolence. In fact, he intensifies it. He asks us to reclaim the humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed. He takes resistance out of the realm of social changes and makes it decidedly personal. 

That is the reverse logic of the Sermon on the Mount. By confronting the legalisms of his day, both religious and cultural, Jesus defied the line between personal and public. He united the outer and the inner in such a way that the disciple could not easily live only in piety or justice. To confront the oppressor was to confront the inner oppressor, making sure that both persons reclaimed the humanity of the other. That is the insanity of love. It cannot leave either party the same. Both are changed in the act of love. 

Nonviolent resistance was, then, not a just a political tactic for Jesus. Rather, confronting the powers was also a confrontation of the ways the powers shape us to do a different kind of violence to others. That is why Christian discipleship is not just a strategy for making more justice in this world. It is a way of life that never leaves us on the moral high ground, but constantly asks us to work on ourselves just as much as we work on our culture. No one is let off the hook in the power of love.


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